Reviews 2011

2011

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
Bach: St John Passion


Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
21/5/2011 Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk
University of Essex Choir
Royal Choral Society

Review by Eric Mason

The University of Essex Choir’s annual visits to Snape Maltings Concert Hall have yielded some memorable performances. This year the Royal Choral Society joined the Essex choir for a joint ascent of one of the choral repertory’s major peaks, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

Beethoven composed the Mass for the enthronement as an archbishop of Archduke Rudolf, his pupil, patron and friend. But the work grew much bigger than originally planned, was three years late for the occasion and in any case was ill suited to liturgical use. It is, however, an awesomely original masterwork. Opportunities to hear it are infrequent.

In the heat of creation Beethoven cared nothing for performers’ convenience, and the Mass poses severe challenges. Under Richard Cooke’s vigorous direction these singers sustained long passages at uncomfortable pitches with commendable stamina. A fine blaze of sound launched the Gloria, and the two choirs were at their confident best in the great double fugue that ends the Credo.

There were only a few misjudgements like the trombones in the Sanctus drowning the four soloists, among whom the smooth, warm tones of the mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds were outstanding.

The Essex Sinfonia gave a reliable account of the important orchestral part, not least Beethoven’s inventive strokes like the fluttering flute evoking the dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit and the reminder of distant war drums that breaks into the concluding prayer for peace.

‘From the heart’, Beethoven wrote in the score, ‘may it in turn go to the heart. ‘ Most of this performance did.

19/02/2011 St John Passion by Bach
Chelmsford Cathedral

Review from Essex County Standard, Feb 2011 by Jackie Wallace:

From the impressively devout opening chorus, it was clear that Bach’s St John Passion would receive an intensely focussed and highly dramatic performance in the hands of Essex University Choir, the London Handel Orchestra and six remarkable soloists under the capable baton of Richard Cooke.

Evangelist Charles Daniels was outstanding. His impeccable diction and infinite tonal variety captivated the listener and created a deeply expressive narrative backbone for the arias and choruses.

The energised choir fulfilled its chameleon-like role superbly, skilfully changing from restrained comment in the hymn-like chorales to animated dialogue as the venom-spitting crowd demanding Christ’s crucifixion, and achieving a heart rending pathos in the flowing chorus Ruht wohl (Rest well) following Christ’s death.

The solo arias were all excellent, providing poignant reflections on the text, and the period instrument orchestra were constantly sympathetic both at full force and in beautifully executed vignettes with just three string players and chamber organ.

A truly inspired account from talented single-minded performers.